Unwind on a Mekong River cruise

11 Oct , 2023  

Last month I was invited to a launch event on the Anouvong while it was in Luang Prabang. It is a beautiful ship and the article below provides an interesting insight into Laos.

By Trudy Harris, Financial Review, October 10, 2023

While several other cruise companies also ply the route, Heritage says it is the first to offer a luxury service. The boutique boat has 10 cabins, including two suites that feature marble bathrooms, a jacuzzi, and a balcony.

Named after the last king of Vientiane, Anouvong was built on the riverbank near Luang Prabang, rather than at a shipyard, with boating, interior design and other specialists flown in from Vietnam (where Heritage Line is based) to complete the lengthy project.

Heritage Line chief executive John Tue Nguyen says this part of the river is shallow, windy and narrow at times, which rules out larger cruise boats. The Anouvong reaches only 1.3 metres below the water, to avoid hitting rocks on the sometimes shallow river bed.

And while Nguyen wants more tourists to come to the remote region, he’s also hoping the river’s difficult terrain will deter bigger cruise companies from jumping in and overpopulating it.

One of only 10 elegant cabins aboard the Anouvong. 

“Nobody can build boats with more than 10-12 cabins, so the big boys in the industry will hopefully not be interested in building smaller boats because there is no money in this size of ship,” says Nguyen, who has specialised in tourism in Indochina for decades, and who incidentally, is blind.

“This will keep this part of the upper Mekong exotic and authentic, not crowded like other rivers,” the Vietnamese businessman says.

The Anouvong is only 49 metres long, and its designers have paid meticulous attention to detail.

The inside upper deck houses wooden and wicker furniture, with traditional silk furnishings, and brass lamps. Floor-to-ceiling windows on either side allow you to sit and enjoy the often mystical jungle surroundings, after ordering a gin and tonic from the well-stocked bar.

The interior designs blend traditional Laotian hand-crafted artworks with French colonial accents. The hallways are lined with black and white photos of Laos tribes in traditional dress, and framed pieces of traditional jewellery.

Heritage wanted to create a boat that was distinctively from Laos, displaying its culture and peoples who are largely unknown to Westerners.

The four-day cruise, therefore, includes visits to villages in the jungle on either side of the river. Cruises further down the Mekong, that take in Vietnam and Cambodia (and those around Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay), have long been popular with European, American and Chinese tourists, plying well-worn routes.

But now that tourism is returning with a vengeance post-lockdowns, Nguyen is banking on travellers wanting something new, in places off the beaten track. He hopes Laos, long in the tourism shadow of its more developed neighbours Thailand and Vietnam, will provide that experience.

Boys in Laos often attend Buddhist monasteries for periods during their childhood.  

“River cruising is definitely growing every day, as cruise travellers are tired of big ocean ships, and they are looking more for river cruising with small vessels and personalised service,” he says.

He’s aiming for luxury travel with a dose of education, history and first-hand insights into how some of the most traditional (and poorest) people in this region live.

The result is a fascinating and, at times, hilarious experience that is not only, yes, relaxing and tranquil, but also a sobering reality check. I’m on Anouvong’s first official voyage, together with a gaggle of travel agents from around the world and two paying passengers from Spain.

One of the excursions is to a lowland village that rarely sees Western visitors and starts with an explanation of their traditional way of life as farmers, followed by a tour of the village. The elderly women perform a Laotian ritual called baci – tying threads around our wrists for good luck and prosperity.

A village school on the banks of the Mekong River in the Chomphet district of northern Laos. 

But the excursion ends with myself and a retired Spanish businessman drinking shots of local whisky (made from fermented rice) with a village elder. Each shot (of 45 per cent alcohol) takes your breath away. The village women are insistent we keep going, as they sit on the bamboo-mat floor of the main village hut, clapping, singing and laughing at our stupidity.

A visit the next day to another village of ethnic Hmong people finds us seated in a tiny dirt-floor school with about a dozen young students, who have one exercise book each, blackboards and an attentive teacher. We learn of the difficulties village children face in continuing on to (and finishing) secondary school, when their parents, farming mainly cassava, earn less than $US500 (about $787) a year. Paying for uniforms and other education expenses can be crippling.

Yet another excursion takes us to an elephant sanctuary, where the French owner has been buying up elephants rescued from working in logging operations. As we watch them bathe in a jungle stream under the watchful eye of a mahout, a local guide explains the sanctuary’s aim is to breed some of the younger elephants to increase their overall population. Thousands once roamed Laos, but their numbers have dwindled to 700 nationally.

The elephant sanctuary in northern Laos. 

After each such excursion, guests are welcomed back on board with a traditional cold drink (blue butterfly pea tea and lychee iced tea are favourites) and a cold towel, while shoes are taken away to be washed.

With the temperature hovering around 30 degrees and humidity close to 80 per cent, both are gratefully received. (The best time to visit Laos is during the dry and relatively cooler months of November to March).

The top deck is prepared for dinner after a hard day relaxing on the lounges. 

Such attention to detail is a highlight of the trip.

There’s a blissful massage and treatment room that allows you to be pampered while taking in the passing river views through floor-to-ceiling windows. Guests come back to the top deck looking even more chilled than before their massages, if that were possible.

Lunch and dinner (a set four courses with vegetarian options) are served in the dining room on the lower deck, while breakfast is a buffet. Chef Tee prepares excellent, mostly Laotian food (very similar to Thai, although he insists there are distinctions) with fresh local ingredients, including fish with ginger and garlic, steamed in banana leaf, and clear pork-ball soup with lemon grass and tofu.

There are also plenty of regional staples such as green chicken curry and sweet sticky rice with mango for dessert. But some fusion is also on offer, such as tender massaman beef with mashed potato and steamed greens, and chocolate mousse with local tropical fruits.

Chef Tee (a young Laotian who has trained at international hotels) demonstrates how to cook one of the favourite dishes. And a barbecue buffet on the deck on the final night is a hit for those missing a taste of home, especially the Mexican and Brazilian travel agents who happily drink into the night.

Chef Tee and his team serve mostly local food, sometimes with a dash of Western fusion. 

As with many new operations, there are teething problems: some promised excursions, such as kayaking along the Mekong, do not eventuate (the kayaks have not yet been secured) and more staff are needed (Heritage is working hard to hire them). But the cruise director is confident these problems will be ironed out quickly.

As we disembark in the river town of Huay Xai, we say goodbye to the staff and head to immigration. Then it’s a short drive across the border and on to northern Thailand’s Chiang Rai. Most of the passengers are staying in the laid-back tourism hub, with its beautiful resorts, temples, night markets and jungle treks.

But I have a plane to catch to Bangkok. It’s back to the hustle and bustle of civilisation. I know I’ll be missing the serenity of the river soon enough.

The writer travelled as a guest of Heritage Line.

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